Sunday, 7 April 2013

A Licence to (Pub) Bore: Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson.

It is a bit of a cliche that repressed laconic Scottish men can only communicate mano a mano when discussing football.  The awkward silence can be ended with an endless discussion of the versatility of full backs or the necessity of playing two strikers when at home and so on  and so on forever.

Recently I would argue though that in Scottish football the debacle and implosion at Rangers, the continued downward spiral of the national team and endless debates on restructuring means that these have replaced discussions on tactics.  They  have fallen by the wayside or  rather put on the shelf and only dusted off occasionally maybe for Celtic's European matches or if eyes come across a Premiership game or the Champions League.  Indeed if you look at Strachan's interview and thousand yard stare post Scotland-Serbia tactical formations were probably the last thing on his or any other Scot's mind.

But this is as Jonathan Wilson's absolutely excellent book demonstrates is a very bad thing in modern football.  Ironically it was in the early years of association football that Scots led the way in developing any form of tactics when playing the game.  English Football slowly adapted to this but was always suspicious.  Indeed one of the reasons of lack of relative success in English football, he argues, is its inability to take on tactical and strategic innovation.

In giving an outline of the development of tactics in football Wilson essentially covers every major development in Wold Football in the last 150 years.  The title comes from the fact that when football began in the late 19th Century the emphasis was on total attack with 5 forwards  and 2 defenders - admiration of dribbling skills and standing off players was the norm.  A bit similar to rugby union - which was of course a posh offspring of football.

The history of football really though in Wilson's view can be looked at through the prism of this being turned on its head.  Indeed it ends (it was written in 2008) with speculation of playing with no clear attackers or strikers - the false 9 position. The ultimate inversion.  And yet the best teams seem to be adapting this system it  was really the formation that Spain used to win  the 2012 European Championship and Barcelona use every week.  It is pretty high risk though - Spain stuttered through the Euros drawing with Italy and Portugal until it all clicked in the final when they met Italy again and dismantled them 4 -0.  When off song Barcelona have lost to Celtic, Real Madrid and AC Milan playing that system.  Man United experimented with it a few years ago with Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs all playing in midfield really but now have reverted to a heavy reliance on one centre forward (R Van Persie).  Big Phil Scolari back as Brazil manager has also reintroduced a traditional striker Fred in his plans to win the World Cup.  And of course er Craig Levine tried it with Scotland away to the Czech Republic, we lost one nil.

See I have started again  most of those points aren't in the book - they happened after it was published. But that is part of the magic of the work it makes you look at football in a different way and go on and on about it. It's like a manual but readable and quite funny in places.  So through all the major events in football: the growth of the Hungary team in the 1940s and 50s, the Brazil team of the 1970 World Cup victory, the catenaccio system of Inter (defeated by Stein's Celtic), the England 1966 victory, total football of 70s Holland, the Saachi machine at Milan they are explained with the incremental changes of formations.  

It is not for everyone this book - who would guess that a discussion of the impact of the change to the offside rule in 1920s could not be universally enjoyed.  It has a lot of tables and charts  in it (!)  and the prose is pretty chunky:  "Aside from the negativity to which it leant itself, the major effect of the prevailing conception of the W-M was to shape the preferred mode of the centre-forward"... As I said not for everyone.

But as well as giving you a new way of looking at football there is loads here I didn't know about.  The significance of Austrian Football in the early days, the innovations of Soviet Football under Maslov and Lobanovskyi,  the fact that English Football through the  FA institutionalised their approach to football tactics (basically a disdain for the passing game) : incidentally explains the appointment of Erikson and Hodgson both of whom used similar methods in Scandinavian football for years.

Wilson is now my favourite football writer - not least because he can make me an even greater pub bore, if anyone was listening to me which they probably aren't... It allows me to nod sagely when Michael Owen announced his retirement - Wilson explains why Owen and his type of player have no future at the top end of football anymore.

I have a bit of a sad addiction to Talksport which endlessly dissects English football from a position of defiant lack of knowledge.  If one more pundit says "It doesn't matter what the boss says once the players step over the white line it's up to them."  I can throw this book at the radio.  Even when a Spanish manager who can't speak a word of English can come into Southampton and turn their results around with instilling a tactical discipline no lessons are learned.

A great book and luckily (from a Scottish perspective) one which the upper echelons of English football will always be dismissive of if they read it at all.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Sad Reflections on life and politics: Iain Banks' Interview with the Scottish Socialist Voice from November 2002.

The desperate news that ground-breaking Scottish writer and all round excellent guy Iain Banks has only a few months to live inevitably leads to some reflection on mortality and time.  I reflected that I had been a fan of Iain Banks since I was a 15 year old at high school (and banned from writing a book review of the Wasp Factory!) when he was a very new writer.  In a sense I grew up with his writing (sci-fi and mainstream) an integrated thread of my own developments up and down in my life.  Banks is an incredibly prolific writer so since the 80s has more or less produced a book a year or 18 months or so.

Another quiet memory was an interview I did with him for the Scottish Socialist Voice which I managed to dig up from computer -  I can't find it online although I do have a hard copy.  It was in 2002 only a decade ago but politically for the Scottish Left it is a geological age.  The optimism of the (relatively) new SSP and the Scottish Parliament is here as is the growing movement against war criminal Blair which would result in the massive anti-war demonstrations a couple of months later.  Banks' latest book at the time was Dead Air - a direct response to the 11th September bombings.

Reflections on life led to me thinking about how sad the political position we are in now in when you read this.  In many ways the period of this interview was the time when the SSP was at its strongest attracting the support of all sections of Scottish society including the cultural wing, involved in the anti-war movement and industrial action (the firefighters were beginning a serious campaign of industrial action, left unity however precarious (the SWP were involved after all) seemed a reality not blind wishful thinking.  Again a few months later the SSP gained 128,000 votes and 6 MSPs.

Now that seems as remote as one of the colourful planets that Iain (M) Banks writes about.  The Scottish Left is generally a wasteground, the SSP disintegrated in the aftermath of 2 court cases  and things have been thrown back many years to way before 2002.  Personally I gave up my membership in 2011 after the Parly elections as the SSP struggled to cope with the post-court case (2010 model) terrain.  

As Banks says here: " the point is not - and never - to give up hope". There are some good signs : the Radical Independence Convention, the anti-bedroom tax demos.  But things are so much more complicated and patchy because there is no coherent left force in Scotland.  For a time there was though and Iain Banks was part of it.  Hopefully as he faces his next few months that will be a positive thought for him.  

He also turned me on to an Orchestra Baobab album which is still one of my favourites!

Iain Banks is one of Scotland’s most successful fiction writers.  Dead Air, published a few months ago is his twelfth novel.  He has also internationally popular with his science fiction work where he has written  nine novels and created his own utopian society: the Culture. He is also, perhaps, the most famous subscriber to the Scottish Socialist Voice!  He gave his views on books, music, the world and politics to Nick McKerrell.

Dead Air seems to have caused a bit of a controversy touching as it does on  the events around September 11.  Did this surprise you?

Not really. Actually I was hoping it would stir things up a bit. A bit more, even (instead of dealing with the issues the book tried to raise, people seemed generally fixated on the fact the first draft was "written" in six weeks - it's true it was typed out in six weeks, however I'd mostly written the book in my head over the three or so months previously).

A lot of your recent mainstream novels seem to deal with a lot of topical issues is this your preferred setting?

I like the freedom of being able to write from a Science Fictional point of view, where you can deal with issues on any scale at all, but I do enjoy writing about the here and now too, because, well, that's where we all live, while still keeping the option of veering off into fantasy or magical realism or whatever, should the notion take me.

The main protagonist in Dead Air is a shock left-wing DJ  who lets rip at various points with his comments on America, the world and everything.   Did you use this to vent your spleen on the  way the world is going?

Definitely. Usually I allow myself just one obvious rant per book, but with this one I decided to make the rants more centre stage. I think since Dubya's non-election and the rightwards slide of New Labour (tm) there seems to be more to rant about.

On that theme  how do you think the world is going?

Badly, just now. The Right has been in the ascendancy since the early Eighties and has done its damnedest to persuade everybody that its way is the only way, but some of the chickens are starting to come home to roost now (the word "Enron" springs to mind, for some reason) and the point is not - and never - to give up hope. Capitalism has had it all its own way since about 1990 and the world is a demonstrably less fair, just and equitable place; alternative ways of running society need to be explored and I think more and more people are open to that idea.

How do you feel about the current warmongering of Bush and Blair?

I've never voted for New Labour and I don't consider myself a subject of the Crown, but I can't help feeling ashamed of what Blair is doing in my - our - name. What is being touted here is a war of naked imperialist aggression, an act of civilisational thuggery.

How do you think the Scottish Parliament has done in the last few years?

Not bad, so far. Not brilliant, certainly, but there have been some progressive measures (student fees, nursing care funding). The biggest scandal is the cost of the new Parliament building; were the planners/accountants from a military background? I thought only weapons systems cost eight times more than originally budgeted for.

What about the SSP?

Well, you get my vote, and I buy the paper... But stop fishing for compliments.

Would you call yourself a socialist?
I do if I bump into right-wing Americans (I don't know, there's just something about the sight of a wildly pulsing vein on the suddenly scarlet brow of a Republican-voting big-name SF author). But I'm rich*, so I'm not sure I'm really allowed to... (*This is rich in the compared-to-most-people sense, not in the Bill Gates or even Sir Paul McCartney sense.)

The Culture –Banks’s utopian universe– could be seen as a vision of a socialist society?

Yes, the Culture, which appears in most of the SF books, is socialist/communist/whateverist. There's no money, private property is synonymous with sentimental value, nothing and nobody is exploited and the opportunities for fun are pretty much unrestricted, so I like to think of it as a society that anybody could be happy in. Well, maybe not people of a determinedly miserablist nature, but they get to use really good, profoundly saturative VR, so even they're happy (relative term) too. Gee, all we need is too-cheap-to-ticket space travel and unlimited clean energy! What's stopping us?

Does it bother you that many people only read your fiction and don’t look at the sci-fi?

 Deeply. But, heck, it isn't compulsory.

Will your next book be science fiction?

 Yup. Though that's about all that even I know. It'll probably end up being a Culture story again because I just love writing about it and there's still a lot of stuff about the Culture I'd like to write about, however if I can think of a really spiffing non-Culture idea between now and this time next year when I have to start writing the blighter, I'll go with that instead (hint: I most likely won't).

How do you rate other Scottish writers?

Far too good. We're just a wee daft country; how DARE there be so many writers what are better than me. It's a disgrace. I may sue.

I know you’re a bit of a music fan.  What are you listening to at the moment?

 Red Hot Chilli Peppers: "By The Way". Or maybe Craig Armstrong: "As If To Nothing".